Presbyterian Church group: Zionism is the problem

‘Zionism Unsettled,’ a new study guide by the PC(USA) Israel Palestine Mission Network, calls movement Jewish supremacism

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

PC(USA) study guide, Zionism:Unsettled (photo credit: Times of Israel)
PC(USA) study guide, Zionism:Unsettled (photo credit: Times of Israel)

For years, scholars have debated the complex causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but for the Israel Palestine Mission Network of Presbyterian Church (USA), the problem stems from a single cause: Zionism.

In “Zionism Unsettled,” a new study guide on Israel released in January for the PC(USA)’s 2.4 million members, the IPMN states its case clearly: Zionism is the problem, destroying both indigenous Palestinian lives and rich Jewish communities across the globe in a supremacist misinterpretation of God’s word on par with “Christian exceptionalist beliefs [that] contributed to the Nazi Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, and countless other instances of tragic brutality.”

Moreover, IPMN’s book argues, the American Jewish community actively stifles dissent against the Zionist narrative, taking advantage of the “ignorance and passivity of many liberal American Jews.”

The IPMN is a PC(USA) working group established in 2011 to explore the history and doctrine of Zionism. It has worked closely with official partner Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a Palestinian Christian organization that pushes divestment from Israel and promotes the idea that the “suffering of Jesus Christ at the hands of evil political and religious powers two thousand years ago is lived out again in Palestine” as a result of Israel’s policies.

The IPMN advises the PC(USA) but does not necessarily speak for the church, according to mission network’s website.

According to the IPMN website, the 68-page pamphlet and accompanying CD is “an invaluable guide to deeper understanding” about steps that “can be taken to bring peace, reconciliation, and justice to the homeland that Palestinians and Israelis share.”

The guide was released ahead of the church’s biennial General Assembly, taking place this June in Detroit. The gathering will once again consider recommendations that it divest from companies that deal with Israel’s military. Similar resolutions have been narrowly defeated in the past.

The Presbyterian Church USA logo
The Presbyterian Church USA logo

In July 2012, the Presbyterian Church (USA) narrowly rejected a proposal to divest from three companies that do business with Israel. The motion, which targeted Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Motorola, was defeated by the very slim margin of 333-331, with two abstentions.

“Zionism Unsettled” praises Jews who speak out against Zionism, and claims that a growing wave of Jewish criticism is underway: “Contemporary voices are breaking the taboos that have stigmatized and punished critical examination of Zionism and its consequences.”

To do so, the report argues, these brave Jews, including Peter Beinart, Ilan Pappe, and Philip Weiss, must withstand a concerted effort to silence them from the 51 member groups associated with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, who are “committed to the suppression of any criticism of Israel in the mainstream American media, in American civil society, and even within their own organizations.”

“Zionism Unsettled” strives to paint Zionism as an ideology foisted initially upon an unsupportive Jewish public, and increasingly outside of the authentic Jewish mainstream today. Most Jews, it claims, reject Zionism with their feet, choosing to live outside of Israel. Were it not for Zionism, Jewish life would be thriving across the Middle East. One graphic presents Jewish life in Iran as “alive and well,” a model of ancient coexistence shattered by the intrusion of Zionism into the region.

It blames the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands as “blowback” from the “perceived injustice of the enforced partition of Palestine, the creation of a Jewish state, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1947-48, and the Sinai War of 1956.”

Zionism has done far worse to Palestinians, according to the study guide. It accuses Israel of intentionally depopulating Palestinian villages in 1948, a process that continues to this day. “Now, 65 years later, the Zionist quest for demographic control of the land in still underway – not only in the occupied territories, but within Israel itself. State planners pursue the goal of ensuring a ‘contiguous Jewish presence’ in every area within Israel.”

Morever, the book argues, Israel is entirely uninterested in peace, and does not negotiate in good faith. “It is hard to find any evidence,” the authors write, “that recent Israeli governments have any intention of negotiating a just peace with Palestinians.”

An elderly woman in the West Bank city of Ramallah displaying the keys to a previous home, before the Israeli victory in 1948. (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/ Flash 90)
An elderly woman in the West Bank city of Ramallah displaying the keys to a previous home, before the Israeli victory in 1948. (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/ Flash 90)

In “Zionism Unsettled,” Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, and other anti-Zionist authors are treated as authoritative, with no critical examination of their positions. The chapter, “A Palestinian Muslim Experience with Zionism,” features several pages on Mustafa Abu Sway of Al-Quds University’s argument that while the Quran is inclusive and peaceful, Zionism is inherently racist.

The authors implicitly compare the Palestinian treatment at the hands of Israel to the Nazi treatment of Jews in World War II. After a paragraph on Abu Sway denouncing the Holocaust in speeches at Yad Vashem, “Zionism Unsettled” continues, “In like manner, the Nakba (catastrophe) that befell the Palestinian people in the late 1940s should never have taken place. The Palestinian story is one of suffering at the hands of the international community, which authorized the division of Palestine in 1947, and at the hands of the Zionists who planned, organized, and implemented systematic ethnic cleansing…They slaughtered untold numbers of Palestinian men, women, and children.”

Jewish fighters outside the Old City walls, 1948 (Courtesy of the Government Press Office, Jerusalem)
Jewish fighters outside the Old City walls, 1948 (Courtesy of the Government Press Office, Jerusalem)

The work could even be seen to justify some violence against Israel. “International law allows resistance to military occupation and dispossession,” reads one of the discussion questions. “What kinds of Palestinian resistance to Jewish expansionism and oppression do you feel are justified?”

In fact, apart from one brief timeline mention of a suicide bombing, Palestinian terrorism is absent from the book. The only group labelled ‘terrorist’ by the authors is a Jewish one, the Irgun.

“Zionism Unsettled” trips over itself at times. It criticizes Israel for ignoring UN resolutions it should accept as authoritative, then decries the UN for giving the Jews a “disproportionate share of territory” in the 1947 partition plan.

The misuse of quotations is more egregious. A figure in a Haaretz article calls Israel’s discourse fanatic and illiberal. “Zionism Unsettled” attributes the quotation to “Haaretz writers.”

And at times, the guide moves closer to something far worse. It claims that liberal Orthodox educator Rabbi David Hartman advocated the wholesale slaughter of Palestinians: “’Let’s really let them understand what the implication of their action is,’ he said of the Palestinians. ‘Very simply, wipe them out. Level them.’”

But a glance at the 2002 Washington Post article from which the quote was taken makes it obvious that Hartman was talking about Palestinian terrorists, not the civilian population at large, as “Zionism Unsettled” wrote.

The preceding paragraph in the Post article reads, “A number of senior military officials have also been pressing for tougher action on the ground, including deep invasions of Palestinian-held territory, to arrest suspected militants and break up what Israelis call the ‘terrorist infrastructure.’ The assaults Thursday on refugee camps in Jenin and Nablus fit into that perspective. Backing for such a strategy is widespread among not only hawkish politicians but also some of Israel’s leading intellectuals.”

Rabbi David Hartman (photo credit: image capture/YouTube)
Rabbi David Hartman (photo credit: image capture/YouTube)

The word tricks run throughout the work. No indication is given of an aggressor in the 1967 or 1973 wars, but it makes clear that “Israel invades Lebanon” in 1982.

“Zionism Unsettled” is not only an attack on Israel and its Jewish supporters. It criticizes the Catholic Church’s landmark 1965 Nostra Aetate, which opened the door for a new relationship between Jews and Catholics, saying that the declaration “raises as many questions as it answers.” It features an entire chapter panning Evangelical Christian support for Israel, lamenting the community’s “uncritical endorsement of Israel’s occupation and settlement of Palestinian lands.”

‘A hit-piece outside all norms of interfaith dialogue’

Not surprisingly, Jewish communal organizations did not look favorably upon “Zionism Unsettled.”

The work “promotes virulent hatred of Israel, as well as animosity toward the historic rights and fundamental sensibilities of Jews across the religious and political spectrum.” said B’nai Brith International in a statement last Friday.

“The seemingly balanced approach is a façade,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s director of Intergroup and Interreligious Relations. “The study guide is reminiscent of medieval Christian polemics against Judaism, with the authors claiming to know better than the Jewish community how Jews define themselves. This is another example of the ongoing effort to demonize Israel by a cadre of people who want to see the dismantlement of the Jewish state.”

“This outrageous screed is the theological twin of the infamous 1975 UN ‘Zionism is Racism’ resolution,” charged Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “‘Zionism Unsettled’ is a hit-piece outside all norms of interfaith dialogue. It is a compendium of distortions, ignorance and outright lies – that tragically has emanated too often from elites within this church.”

“To be clear, this publication isn’t an attack on particular Israeli policies but on the very idea of a Jewish return to Zion,” he continued.

The PC(USA) refused repeated requests for comment on “Zionism Unsettled.” Rev. Walt Davis, co-chair of the IPMN’s education committee, said he would only agree to talk to someone who has read the entire book and watched the DVD, on the condition questions were submitted 24 hours in advance.  “Some who already have commented on ZU have clearly not read or tried to understand what it is and what it is intended to achieve,” he lamented in an email, but would not expand on his comments.

Identifying with the ‘powerless’ against the ‘chosen’

Why would an American church take such firm positions on a conflict half the world away, and why has it accepted the Palestinian narrative so completely?

In an email interview with The Times of Israel, Christian-Jewish relations scholar Murray Watson identified three reasons behind positions taken by mainline Protestant churches against Israel.

The first, he said, is “a deep rootedness in liberation theology, a stream of theological thinking and analysis that emerged from Latin America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Central to liberation theology is the Biblical assertion that God seeks freedom and justice for all His people, and is actively on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the powerless and the marginalized — and, conversely, against those who oppress His people and deprive them of their legitimate rights.”

For many Western Christians, continued Murray, co-founder of the Centre for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Learning at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario, Palestinians are seen as the poor, the weak, the oppressed, while Israel is seen as the powerful, oppressive force. “Therefore, the Palestinian narrative deserves to be given a privileged place in theological analysis, since God is ‘on their side.'”

The second reason, said Watson, is that many Western Protestant churches either have Palestinian counterpart churches, or have a formal form of affiliation with Palestinian Christian churches. “Sometimes this results in a very uncritical acceptance of anything that any Palestinian Christian group proposes.”

The final reason lies in a Christian misinterpretation of the Jewish idea of “chosenness.”

“To a generation that has grown up with the idea of radical equality — that all people are fundamentally equal, and certainly equal in terms of God’s love and care, the idea that any particular group could claim to be ‘chosen’ in a way which makes them qualitatively different from others, strikes some Christians as arrogant, as if ‘chosenness’ was to be equated with ‘moral superiority,'” Watson explained. “I have said for a long time that this interpretation of chosenness is actually a Christian caricature, and doesn’t correspond to Jewish thinking or theology, which speaks of that ‘chosenness’ as something of a burden or a responsibility that is borne, often at great expense, for the sake of God’s love.

“The term ‘chosen people’ grates on the ears of some Christians, and so they react against it and, by reacting against it, feel the need to ‘put down’ Jews, whom they perceive to have used ‘chosenness’ to ‘lift themselves up’ above others.”

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